I just might be the only person in the world whose parents went to the Indianapolis 500 on their honeymoon. Until a fortnight ago this small and rather curious fact was my only link with the sport of auto racing. Then an opportunity came to attend the eighth annual Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside, Calif., and I took it eagerly. After all, as I was informed, it had become one of America's classic sports car races. I must admit, however, that there was another reason for my eagerness. I had also learned that Riverside's race weekend could be a wild and swinging affair. Hadn't the young race hounds at Watkins Glen, N.Y.—a clean-cut group of collegians—recently set fire to the bales of hay at the track and tossed two motorcycles into the flames for good measure? Who knew what bongos might be bonged, what frugs might be frugged and what local tribal customs I might observe in the interest of edifying my sheltered eastern friends?
Riverside International Raceway turned out to be a seared, tan saucer backed by dun-colored hills that resemble carelessly crumpled tortillas. The race weekend was marked by southern California's worst smog in nine years, a gullet-filling, nose-burning, eye-blistering gaseous haze that had drifted the 50 miles from Los Angeles and was aggravating an environment already burdened with drought-dusty upper-90° temperatures. The raceway was simply a sizzling platter during the time trials, but the myriad offbeat spectators roaming the grounds did not seem to mind. One ducktailed sybarite, as impervious to sunstroke as the rest, strolled past, wearing a T shirt bearing only one word, "Boo!" While the uninitiated might think he was simply celebrating the Halloween weekend, I had been clued in that boo is the slang word for pot, weed or Mary Jane—you know, marijuana. My interest quickened.
As a conscientious reporter I duly noted the presence of such big names in racing as Jim Clark, the world champion driver; of the Indianapolis men, A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti; of the visiting Europeans Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren; of Dan Gurney and Walt Hansgen, Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, Ronnie Bucknum and Ken Miles.
In the pits crews were pampering approximately $600,000 worth of sports two-seaters which would never carry more than one person—the driver. These cars seemed to be puny, tubercular metallic animals at first, their delicate mechanisms sputtering and coughing—until they rolled out onto the track. Then they would roar like pained paranoiacs.
The pit crews seemed to love their work. And no wonder. They were surrounded by acres of girls, girls, girls. And what girls! Mother never saw girls like this at Indianapolis. There was a chick wearing a black-leather Courr√®ges chamber-pot hat, gold sandals and skintight purple hip-huggers. There were two fabulously endowed starlets or models or mothers or something, sunbathing on the concrete-block pit wall in bikinis. There was a sullen Elizabeth Taylor type in a silver lamé shirt (this at 2 p.m. on one of the hottest days of the year in country that would have made Pancho Villa nervous). There was Mrs. John Mecom, wife of the Houston racing-car builder, standing in moneyed silk Pucci splendor near her husband's Lola. There was a sweet young thing in khaki stretch-jersey overalls watching Andretti, a comedian, cracking a braided whip at his pit crew. There were tighter than tight pants with flowered bell-bottoms and, up above, cowboy hats. There was a blonde sitting in an air-conditioned car with the motor running, her bare feet up on the dash. There were classy-looking dames surrounding a powder-blue-coveralled Jimmy Clark, who was parked off alone with his own group. There was a blonde college girl who wore a fuchsia vinyl top with a big matching hat and a bathing suit hidden underneath it all.
Then there were the males of the species, with their philosophy that you were out unless you were in a T shirt that talked. The varieties were endless and some of the printable ones read: HELP STAMP OUT CALIFORNIA DRAG RACING; GO STRAIGHT TO HELL DO NOT PASS GO DO NOT COLLECT $200; COORS, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS; COBRA, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS; SEX SATISFIES; SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FUZZ; PARTICIPANT 1965 WATTS RIOT.
One shirt bore only a picture—a copy of an engraving depicting a Roman bacchanal. With these splendid playthings everyone seemed to wear either a hat or a variety of beard. There were ten gallons, boating and golfing caps, a hat consisting solely of madras petals, a Marine garrison hat from World War I, every kind of planter's straw and even a deerstalker.
Although every person entering the pit area had signed a contract absolving the raceway of responsibility in case of accident and there had already been one crash putting David Hobbs's Lola T-70 out of action, the pits were full of these exotic spectators. They weren't watching the trials, either; they left that to the squares in the grandstands. "That's another attraction of racing, you know—all these chickies," said a Tucson, Ariz. racing enthusiast serving as an official for the Grand Prix. "Each car has a driver and four crew members and they bring their wives and girl friends, and those dames try to outdo each other in short shorts or whatever else is the fad. That's their way to get recognition. Same way with those guys who hang around but don't race. Everybody here is an exhibitionist. It's the nature of car racing. You see, regardless of what kind of auto you drive, you associate yourself with these drivers and you say to yourself, 'I wonder if I could do it?' And you think you could. These kids come here not only for excitement but because everybody in the world is a potential racing driver."
This philosophy particularly applies in the Los Angeles area, where the car is god, there being 3,230,000 of these indispensable smog-producing household pets. Clifton Fadiman recently described life in California by paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens' faded pronouncement on the U.S.S.R. ("I have been over in the future and it works"). Mr. Fadiman quipped of his adopted state, "We have seen the future—and it plays."
They were playing like mad at Riverside Raceway, milling around with sophisticated insouciance, buying car emblems and patches from the hawkers, watching the cars now and again and swilling great quantities of beer. The rising dust from the roaring cars lifted to meet the lowering smog, a situation not paralleled by the ubiquitous low-rise hip-hugger and the barely adequate bolero. "Would you like to join the Freedom Fighters?" one Fu Manchu mustache asked a man with a spade beard. "Man," snorted the beard, "what freedom you fighting, anyway?"
The afternoon wore on, and eventually, at cocktail time, the track went quiet and the elite met to sample imported beer and cheese at an exclusive bash being given in the Mission Inn's Spanish-flavored Music Room by the British consulate general and British Motor Car Distributors Ltd. Here there was an air of respectability, but I managed to spot an unconventional bloke or two. British Motor Sports Writer Bill Gavin, who had Vidal Sassoon bangs identical to those worn by his wife, held forth on why the English did not hope to win at Riverside: "There is no weight limit on these cars. To develop a car capable of winning you need to campaign it over 10 or 12 races. Outside the U.S. this type race is rarely held." An American motor sports magazine publisher with waxed blond mustache, Dave Davis, sampled first a Queen's Ale, then a Watney's Stingo, then a Bulmer's Woodpecker Cider to celebrate "the 10 years since I got my new face after being dragged under a racer at Sacramento." Someone pointed out a neat, silent chap as Art Arfons, who was to set the world record for speed, 536 miles per hour, until last week, when Craig Breedlove went faster—and regained the record Sunday by doing 576. Someone else asked Graham Hill to hold still for a picture, and Jackie Stewart, the wee Scot, stood around accepting congratulations on a brand-new 9-pound 3-ounce baby boy. A British accent began singing flat over a mike as a piano thumped out A Bicycle Built for Two. Except for a certain lunging at the hors d'oeuvres, it was a cocktail party in the most civilized tradition. "What a wonderful contrast it will make," I told a new friend, "to the wild ones out in the fields, where those yo-yos even now are souping themselves up on sneaky pete, Coors and who knows—boo!"
"I beg your pardon," said a girl in a white fox stole.
It was past midnight when other sociologists and I swung out of the Mission Inn and silently sped to the darkened racetrack. At the end of Day Street near the track, cars and campers and trailers and station wagons and old panel trucks were lined up on both sides of the dusty road, faced in the direction of the raceway entrance. "That's so they'll get to roar right in with a kind of drag race of their own at 6 a.m., when the official rocket goes up off our observation tower," said our driver. As we idled down the center of the street we saw a few youngsters standing huddled around fires. More were rolled up in blankets already sacked out and many were asleep in their cars. At the other area staked out by the cops for parking, on Pigeon Pass Road, the situation was the same. There were not many girls, no music, few bonfires, no dancing and less beer drinking than at the Mission Inn. At one point a young man came to the car window and said, "Sir, would you put on your parking lights only. We're trying to make love here." There was no sign of it. Either these kids had never seen the movie Where the Girls Are or else the police had cracked down so rigidly that they had put a general quietus on the scene. "Well, it sure isn't Fort Lauderdale," someone sighed. "Next thing we know these kids will take to smoking grapevines and corn silk."
We returned to the inn, where it was infinitely madder. The cocktail waitress was wearing a Bardahl sticker on each side of her chest and someone had put a T shirt advertising "Moon Equipped" drag-racing products on the marble bust of Diana in the hotel hallway.
On Sunday a record crowd wedged into the valley in smog so thick it was palpable. "The crowd today is 84,478, a new record," said the announcer. One had to take his word for it, as you could not see very clearly through air that was the color of a warm daiquiri.
Of the 84,478, perhaps 4,000 had come to watch the race. The others ambled around, seeking the colorful alley of tents called the Rue du Grand Prix, where a combo poured out an electrically amplified big beat. Here barefoot racing enthusiasts did the Watusi. "This scene is incredible," said one Indianapolis veteran. "Look at these crowds, and the grandstand is empty."
Out on the 2.6-mile circuit the cars moved like thundering, flickering shadows through the smaze, with the leaders hitting 157 mph on the back straightaway. Texan Hap Sharp, a 37-year-old Santa-shaped man, won in record time. His Chaparral II, with a fiber-glass chassis, fiber-glass body and secret automatic transmission, rolled along at an untroubled 102.989 miles per hour, surpassing the record of 99.245 set last year by Parnelli Jones. With Olympia beer cans becoming mountainous heaps at track-side, Scotland's Jimmy Clark finished second in his Lotus 40, 11 seconds behind Sharp. Bruce McLaren followed in a creation he calls "The McLaren-Elva Special Mark I."
The victory was worth $14,640 to Sharp, who has been called a Texas banker. "I know where the mistake came from," said the winner. "Someone quoted me as saying I owned several banks in Texas. What I said was that I owed several Texas banks."
To questions about how this automatic transmission works, Sharp rubbed his red eyes wearily and answered cheerily, "I ain't going to tell you how it works."
An unseen jet from nearby March Air Force Base propelled a jolting sonic boom across the valley. It was perfectly timed. The race cars had come safely home through the thickening air, and the noise shook at least 20,000 people awake who, full of beer and smog, had crawled into cars and trailers to sleep it off. A freshening wind blew in more smog from L.A. Sharp and a victory party rolled along the freeway to Santa Monica and ended up at The Ball on Wilshire Boulevard, where the waitresses not only take your orders but also dance quite undressed. "This is kind of disconcerting," said Sharp to Carroll Shelby. "I've been to 10 county fairs but I ain't never seen nothing like this."
Considering the weekend and all its parts, neither have I.